VICKSBURG, Miss.— The U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) is home to more than 2,000 professionals across dozens of disciplines and backgrounds, and in order for the organization to be successful, its workforce needs strong leadership.
Since 1999, the ERDC has sought to identify and train new leaders through its Emerging Leaders Group (ELG), a three-year program focusing on how to lead people and programs. In 2015, the ERDC Directorate of Human Capital took oversight of the program, which then grew significantly from eight to 25 members each year.
“I loved my experience in ELG, and I enjoyed every part of it,” said Mariely Mejias, a recent ELG graduate and chief of the Geotechnical and Structures Laboratory’s Structural Engineering Branch. “I made good friends, strong relationships and was able to interact with ERDC and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) leadership throughout the process.”
From traveling to Washington, D.C., for an up-close look at how the Department of Defense operates, to face-to-face meetings with senior leadership and organizing major events, ELG participants stay busy during their three years in the program.
“Your time commitment is similar to that of a research project,” Mejias explained, adding that the number of hours required are outlined up front. “Depending on the project you’re working on, there can be times when the workload can be heavy, but you always work in teams, so it is very important how the load is distributed among the teams.
Dr. George Calfas, another recent ELG graduate and acting deputy director of the Construction Engineering Research Laboratory agreed with Mejias and added that for him, the obligation was well worth the effort.
“Anyone who goes into ELG needs to understand that it is a time commitment,” Calfas said. “But I would tell anyone who is interested to go for it. Take the opportunity; ERDC is making such an investment in our future leaders.”
Dr. Andrea Scott, who serves as development program manager for ERDC’s Directorate of Human Capital, said that programs such as ELG are a key way to make the ERDC workforce even stronger.
“ERDC believes deeply in investing in its people,” Scott said. “The best way to ensure long-term organizational success is to cultivate our own future leaders through workforce development programs.”
“It broadens perspectives on the corporate issues and prepares ELG members to solve strategic problems to better support the progress and growth of the enterprise,” Scott added. “It equips participants with the organizational knowledge, personal awareness and leadership skills critical for moving the organization forward in complex and constantly changing environments.”
ELG is essentially the third step of another ERDC investment in its future leaders, the Leadership Development Program (LDP). LDP 1, which focuses on leading oneself, is a pre-requisite to LDP 2, which focuses on leading teams. In order to apply for ELG, employees must have graduated from LDP 1 and 2.
“I chose to participate in LDP 2 because it was about teamwork and teaming, and that was a really beneficial step for me to accomplish,” Calfas said. “ELG is all about leading initiatives, building a coalition. It gave me a jumpstart to learn how to do that, as well as a chance to engage with senior staff.”
Though COVID-19 forced many planned in-person sessions to switch to a virtual environment, the group was still able to accomplish their goals, including hosting RD20, a research and development symposium open to all of ERDC.
“We were able to shift gears,” Calfas said. “I think the way we did virtual training will be a lesson learned across the ERDC for educational opportunities.”
And at the end of the day, both Calfas and Mejias came away having learned more than just leadership skills — they found themselves being better employees overall.
“The program gave me a broader perspective of our organization and helped develop my skills in areas such as decision making, communication, conflict resolution and others,” Mejias said, adding that ELG allowed her the chance to shadow top USACE leadership. “Being exposed to the USACE executive environment was very eye-opening and gave me a better perspective of ERDC’s role within USACE.”
“For me, a lot of it was being able to take a good deep look at myself as a person and continue to develop my interpersonal skills,” Calfas said. “Communication, planning timeliness — those things are activities in your life, whether personal or professional. The program was really arming me to be a better person, both at home and at work.”